Jacqueline Harrison, one of two Teachers of the Year for Mustang High School, knew since the end of her third grade year that she would teach. As the Effective Learning Strategies teacher at MHS, her interest in teaching began at the Special Olympics State Games in the 1980s. Her best friend’s brother had Down’s Syndrome, and the family invited her along to Stillwater. Harrison and her siblings played sports, and she was acquainted with the negativity that accompanied competition, where the goal of the game was always winning. At Special Olympics, the concept of competition did not pit one person or team against another.
“The energy in that environment - every single person there supported everybody and not just their kid or their friends,” she said. “It was a complete, unified support.”
At the end of the games, her friend’s mother took Harrison aside.
“She set me down and said you have to do something with special needs kiddos,” Harrison remembered. “‘You’re so good with them,’ she said, ‘and you don’t look at them any differently.’”
Harrison’s own experience at school was difficult at times. Although her reading was on par, she struggled in math. She clearly remembers the day she was standing at the chalk board in the third grade, in her favorite white and yellow striped shirt with white tennis shoes working math problems.
“Mrs. “G” was the meanest teacher I ever had through all my years in school. I remember standing at the board in my favorite outfit working math problems. I’ve always had difficulty in math. And she said, ‘You are so stupid. Just sit down.’ I was beside myself. And from that moment, I thought, ‘I am stupid in math.’ I let her get to me for so long. She was always this voice in the back of my head, ‘I can’t do math.’ And even as I got older, I thought ‘How can I give her so much power? She wasn’t even a good teacher.’”
In the wake of Mrs. “G”’s cruelty, better teachers followed who understood her struggles and individualized their instruction for her. Harrison was also chosen to join a group that read to second graders, once a week. As she went into junior high, she continued returning to the elementary to read. By the time she was ready to graduate, there was no question she would get a degree in education.
“I never strayed away from teaching. The question was what was I going to teach? But then I realized in the third year of college that everything I questioned I could apply to special education. I love English. I love literature. I love behavioral psychology. You can apply all of these to special education because you need all subject areas. I didn’t really know what a special ed classroom looked like because where I went to school we had five special ed students and it was the same five students every year.”
Harrison was a student teacher at
Choctaw High School, but knew she wanted to teach out of state. She taught in
Las Vegas for three years before moving to Austin.
“I ran the social behavioral skills unit,” she said. “It was there that a I really started working with behaviorally challenged students.”
She returned home to Choctaw to be closer to family before accepting a position at Mustang. She serves as the department head for special education at MHS. She’s in year 15. Her classroom is a zen-like environment with soft lighting, regular desks, a few bean bag chairs and calming music.
Harrison says she fights for kids some people don’t understand. Her classroom at MHS is a safe place where struggling students can find effective learning strategies, help with homework or interviewing skills. At times the classroom conversation even turns to hygiene.
“We talk about anything I think they can benefit from in the real world. That’s really my passion, to help them transition,” she said.
Harrison has no plans to leave
“I’ve never thought about burnout,” she said. “I will retire an educator.”
Harrison is one of 14 Teachers of the Year for Mustang Public Schools. She’s in her 15th year of teaching.